ISSN 2330-717X

Lessons From South Asia’s Past Can Help Myanmar Shape Its Present – Analysis


By Tridivesh Singh Maini*

The decision of Aung San Suu Kyi to nominate Htin Kyaw, a trusted aide who runs an educational foundation, as the Presidential Candidate of the National League of Democracy (NLD) was expected since Suu Kyi has made it clear that until she can amend the section of the Constitution which bars her from becoming President, she would like to work in a role ‘above the President’.

Given the massive political transformation that is currently underway in Myanmar, there are a number of factors which the country needs to take note of and it is in this context that there are lessons that it can to draw from South Asia. To begin with, the point about institutionalizing democracy and keeping the military in check has been made by a number of observers, with Pakistan often being cited as a case of excessive domination of the military; where the military with all its power excesses obstructed the growth of strong institutions and a genuine democracy in the country.

The given scenario in Myanmar however, does not permit Suu Kyi a free-hand to deal with the Burmese military as much as she (and the rest of the world) would want. The fact that Myanmar had been under the control of tight-fisted junta for the greatest part of its life since its independence and that the military continues to play a major political role in the country makes it impossible for it to be stamped out of Burmese politics all at once. Thus, Suu Kyi cannot afford to adopt an excessively belligerent stance with the army.

If one were to look at Pakistan, the mistake which leaders have made is either being too submissive or not being able to choose their battles sensibly. Nawaz Sharif’s belligerent approach toward the army in his second term in the late 1990’s best exemplifies this point. The best way to strengthen democracy would be a working relationship, which does not however, mean kowtowing with the Army.

So far Suu Kyi has exhibited sagacity and maturity in holding consultations with the Army, and been reasonably reconciliatory. Apart from this, mere procedural democracy is not enough, it is also important to deliver on governance and make the necessary economic reforms required for giving a boost to foreign direct investment. Suu Kyi has the onerous responsibility of dealing with high expectations. For this she needs a capable team and her team should consist of capable individuals who can deliver. Excessive concentration of power in the hands of a few individuals will not work.

Second, a true democracy has to encourage religious diversity and while external powers have not spoken about atrocities against the Rohingyas, in order to ensure stability, Suu Kyi cannot avoid speaking out against high handedness against any community. Apart from this, both Bangladesh and India, neighbours of Myanmar would be keeping a close eye on this issue since it can have serious security ramifications for both.

Third, it is important for Myanmar to balance its relations with key countries in the neighbourhood and not be excessively dependent on any one country. In this context, Myanmar would do well to learn from Bangladesh, which in recent time has balanced its relationships with important countries (China, India and Japan) and has benefited economically from doing so. Of late, Bangladesh, unlike other countries in South Asia, has managed not just to build strong relations with Japan and China, but has also improved ties with India, as a consequence of which bilateral trade has witnessed a rise. A clear instance of the above point is the fact that Japan was awarded the Matarbari Project; initially China had evinced interest in it. Similarly, India has decided to develop a deep sea port by the name of Payra. India’s state-run Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) has also bagged a power project in Khulna beating China’s Harbin Electric International Company to win the project.

This is not to say that Myanmar has not been attempting to build economic relations with important regional and international players, without being excessively dependent upon any one A look at top investors in Myanmar clearly reveals that Singapore has taken China as the top Asian investor in Myanmar. Japan too is investing in important projects, with the key project being the Thilawa Economic Zone in which the Japanese government has a 10 percent stake through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and a Japanese Private Consortium has 39 percent stake through the MMS Thilawa Development Company. Apart from this four foreign banks have been given preliminary approval to begin operations they include the Bank for Investment and Development of Vietnam, E.SUN Commercial Bank (Taiwan), Shinhan Bank (South Korea) and State Bank of India will each receive a licence, according to an announcement from the Central Bank’s Licensing Committee on March 4. All these steps do not mean that Myanmar has in any way moved away from China, in fact even before winning the election Suu Kyi visited China in June 2015, and made it unequivocally clear that Myanmar wants cordial relations with Beijing and does not want to become a battleground.

In conclusion, Myanmar has dealt with numerous upheavals and there have been phases in its history, especially during the rule of Mindon Min in the mid-19th century when significant changes took place not just in the context of domestic policy, but also within its foreign policy. The pragmatic ruler sought to build strong linkages not just with countries in the region, but also the western world. Aung San Suu Kyi will get endless advice and recommendations from western think-tanks on laying the foundations for a strong democracy, but there are enough lessons to be learned from the successes and failures of Asian democracies and Myanmar’s own history.

*Tridivesh Singh Maini is a Senior Research Associate at The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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To create a more credible and empathetic knowledge bank on the South Asian region, SPS curates the South Asia Monitor (, an independent web journal and online resource dealing with strategic, political, security, cultural and economic issues about, pertaining to and of consequence to South Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. Developed for South Asia watchers across the globe or those looking for in-depth knowledge, reliable resource and documentation on this region, the site features exclusive commentaries, insightful analyses, interviews and reviews contributed by strategic experts, diplomats, journalists, analysts, researchers and students from not only this region but all over the world. It also aggregates news, views commentary content related to the region and the extended neighbourhood.

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